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MEP learning pack

Masters in Educational Practice: Child and adolescent development 0-19


Speech, language and communication development


Verbal and non-verbal language


Phonology - the study of speech sounds, their patterns and sequences and the rules that dictate sound combinations to create words.

Fluency - the aspect of speech production that refers to the continuity, smoothness, rate and/or effort with which phonologic, lexical, morphologic and/or syntactic language units are spoken.

Semantics - the study of meaning in a language.

Syntax - the study of sentence structure.

Morphology - the study of word structure.

Verbal communication - (or speech) what you say.

When someone speaks they produce a stream of sounds. When we ‘know’ a language, we can make sense of the sounds; when we don’t, it can sound like gibberish. We don’t know where to break the flow of sounds in order to hear the words. The study of the speech sounds is called phonetics. Phonetics looks at the ability to segment a continuous flow of sounds into smaller parts, such as sentences, words and even the individual sound segments within a word.

It also involves the physical production of these sounds:

  • articulation - the ability to pronounce sounds clearly within the range of individual variance that may constitute a different accent, but would not cause misinterpretation
  • voice - the use of the lungs and vocal chords to produce sounds. The ‘voiceless’ sounds, e.g. [p] or [t] allow the air to flow freely through the vocal chords; holding the vocal chords closer together so they vibrate produces the ‘voiced’ sounds, e.g. [b] or [z]
  • fluency - the smooth rhythm of speech.

Non-verbal communication includes the use of facial expressions, posture and gestures to convey meaning. Some of the most important aspects of effective communication are non-verbal.

Non-verbal communication includes gestures such as pointing to something you want, smiling at someone, shrugging your shoulders when unsure or indifferent, nodding or shaking your head to indicate yes and no, or the use of your hands to stop someone. These gestures can be quite culturally specific and may be misinterpreted by someone from a different cultural background, leading to miscommunication.

Posture includes elements of ‘body language’. Is the person sitting or standing in a way that invites discussion, or do they appear defensive or stubborn? These elements of communication are also culturally specific, as is the distance that is acceptable between partners in a conversation. What is seen as friendly and encouraging in one culture can be judged over familiar in another. As children grow they learn from their social environment what is acceptable in their own culture.

Another aspect of non-verbal communication, although it is related to speech, is the element known as ‘paralanguage’. This includes features such as the quality of the voice (e.g. deep and resonant, breathy), the rate and pitch of speech, and the prosodic elements, such as intonation, rhythm and stress. These add subtle nuances of meaning to communication, and must also be learnt by the growing child.

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